BMCR 2023.03.18

King of the world: the life of Cyrus the Great

, King of the world: the life of Cyrus the Great. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. xvi, 255. ISBN 9780190927172

Matt Waters’ new book, King of the World: the life of Cyrus the Great, is a welcome contribution to the field of ancient history. In his preface and introduction chapter, he sets out his aim to provide a new general history on Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire that conquered the Median Empire, the Kingdom of Lydia, and the Babylonian Empire. The Persian Empire at its peak stretched over two million square miles, which is an impressive feat (1). Waters’ overall argument is that Cyrus is one of the most pivotal figures in ancient history, yet he is underappreciated and often overlooked (2).

The first chapter provides background information about the state of Persia before Cyrus. It covers the 8th and 7th century BCE interactions between the Persians and the nearby Babylonians, Assyrians, and Elamites. This context is very important, as it demonstrates that Persia was already looking to expand before Cyrus came into power. It sets the historical stage to highlight Cyrus’s later contribution as well.

The second chapter discusses the sources on Cyrus and information on his life before his ascension to the throne. Not much is written about Cyrus’s birth or early life in Near Eastern sources; thus, most of the information on his early life comes from later Greek authors such as Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon (35). These sources share common threads about Cyrus; however, they also contradict each other as well. One example regarding his origins will suffice here. Herodotus says that Cyrus was raised in obscurity among the common people (36). Ctesias of Cnidus provides a similar commoner origin story that Cyrus was born of ignoble stock, of Atradates the bandit and Argoste the goat-herder (38). Xenophon’s account is very different, stating that he was raised as a royal prince (39). Waters’ masterfully integrates these sources to shed light on the historian’s craft, which is a great element for a general audience to witness.

The third and fourth chapters cover Cyrus’s military campaigns against the Medes, Lydians, and Babylonians. In both chapters, Waters does a fine job providing the context and background of these empires before Cyrus invaded them. He takes an interdisciplinary approach, using written sources, seals, and archaeological evidence to provide a full picture of these events. These narratives are peppered with great details, such as the solar eclipse that occurred in one of his battles with the Kingdom of Lydia (73) and his tactics to divert the Euphrates River when taking Babylon (91). Such attention to detail while maintaining a strong narrative is a strength of this book and provides new insights even for those who are familiar with this great Persian king.

The final two chapters, five and six, attest to Cyrus’s legacy and importance to history, which is a major point of emphasis in this book. Chapter five looks at the imperial projects he accomplished. Beyond the famous “Persian Pony Express” (113), he also controlled a major army and promoted a unifying ideology for the Persian Empire (117). Chapter five also provides a detailed description of the archaeological remains of Pasargadae, the new Achaemenid capital that Cyrus founded. The city includes his tomb, a gate, two palaces, a royal garden, and two towers (144). Several images from David Stronach’s prior excavations are used as visuals for the reader. Chapter six builds on this theme of Cyrus’s legacy and importance by looking at how he has been treated since his death. Examples from the modern state of Iran (179), positive references to him in the Bible (170), and Alexander the Great’s fascination with him are referenced here (170).

Overall, Waters accomplishes what he sets out to do in this book. He provides a welcome new general book on Cyrus. He also attests to the importance of Cyrus as an influential figure in his age as well as today. The book is a quick read and is a page turner. The interdisciplinary approach of weaving together history, archaeology, and other fields is much appreciated as well. The appendices in the back [A) On Sources, B) Translation of the Cyrus Cylinder, and C) Teispids and Achaemendis] are helpful resources as well. Waters’ King of the World: the life of Cyrus the Great is an excellent book for anyone seeking to learn about Cyrus and the Persian Empire.